Recording a selection of Latin American pieces after a Beethoven and a Mahler disc is not as far-fetched as it may seem. Indeed, for Gustavo Dudamel the distance between Beethoven and the Venezuelan composer Carreño is only as great as a dance step. “My father played in a salsa group," he remembers, “so I started to dance when I was really small - a baby. You know, learning to dance is part of our culture - dancing is in our blood ... Latin music is all about dance, about rhythm. And we try to put this spice into all of our music. With Mahler - the second movement of the Fifth Symphony is so full of energy - or the last movement of Beethoven 7, or the first movement - there is a feeling of dance."
It was logical, then, that Dudamel's third recording for Deutsche Grammophon would be a disc of Latin American music. “Often in a concert we will play a Beethoven or Mahler symphony, but in the first half we might perform Castellano and Ginastera. To us, there is a close connection, because music is first of all energy and movement. Mahler and Beethoven are important, but it's also important to have the opportunity to present our own music. For this recording we decided to choose small pieces by different composers, to show the beauty of Latin American music. We created a little mosaic of the best. It's like a party, a fiesta."
Dudamel's selection includes four Venezuelan composers, two Mexicans and an Argentine. Leonard Bernstein's spirited Mambo, a nod to Latin exuberance from the North, which the Venezuelans have made their own, rounds off the collection.
It was with Aldemaro Romero's Fuga con Pajarillo (1990) that the 23-year-old Dudamel sealed his fate as winner of Bamberg's inaugural Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2004. “His joyful identification with the piece elicited some of the orchestra's best playing of the weekend", commented Andante observer Eric Valliere. “You had to bring a piece from your own country", says Dudamel. “This one is wonderful: difficult to put together, but beautiful. I met Maestro Romero five years ago at a party, and when I decided to play his music, he was very happy. “A pajarillo is a typical Venezuelan dance - perhaps the most famous one, alongside the joropo. It's like a waltz, but with the accent on the weak beat - not 'one two three, one two three,' but 'one two three, one two three'. It's not a comfortable dance!" Romero is best known as the creator of Venezuela's “New Wave" (Onda Nueva) school of music, derived from the Brazilian bossa nova and the Venezuelan joropo, and for his skill at combining folkloric forms, popular song and traditional symphonic techniques.
“The piece is a pajarillo, but in combination with a complex fugue", Dudamel explains. “The pajarillo pervading the melody and the rhythm gives a sense of improvisation and contrasts with the predetermined fugal form. This is what makes this piece so fascinating."
Folk dances are similarly important for Inocente Carreño. His Margariteña (1954) is one of his most direct settings of traditional Venezuelan melodies in an output, which tends towards a more European approach. Its title is drawn both from the popular song “Margarita es una lágrima" (“Margarita is a tear") and the rhapsodic Venezuelan Margariteña form. “Carreño was a horn player, which you can feel in all the horn solos of Margariteña", says Dudamel. “He is also a conductor, and I have conducted for him and with him. You can feel the beach in this piece. You can feel the air and smell the water. It's full of life, but also nostalgic - one of the songs he uses is a children's song, a tune we sing when we play games."
Like Carreño, Evencio Castellanos was a pupil of Venezuelan musicologist, pedagogue and composer Vicente Emilio Sojo (1887-1974), who collected and documented Venezuelan folk music, wove its influence through his many major works of church music, and founded the Venezuelan Symphony Orchestra in 1930. Castellanos' Santa Cruz de Pacairigua (“Holy Cross of Pacairigua") from 1954 is named after a small church near Caracas, which owes its fame to the raucous festivities at its annual Feast of the Cross. “It's a day of religious parties, where the Devil fights to gain possession of the Cross and has to be stopped", Dudamel says. “In Castellanos' piece you can hear both the genteel celebrations of the rich and the rustic parties of the poor, leading up to a climax of drinking, dancing and people enjoying themselves ... For this recording, we had the amazing opportunity of having Castellanos' son, who is also a conductor, playing the celesta in the orchestra. He brought his father's manuscripts of the piece to the rehearsals."
More elegiac in tone is Antonio Estévez's Mediodía en el Llano (“Noon on the Plain"), a symphonic evocation of Los Llanos, the broad, flat grasslands of Venezuela's high steppes. The plains were inviting to vast herds of cattle brought in during the colonial era by the llaneros, Venezuela's answer to the American cowboy. Estévez composed the piece as the middle movement of his 1948 Suite Llanera, but later jettisoned the outer movements, saying of the Mediodía, “Even though this seems to me the suite's most arid part, it is also the most Venezuelan." “This is one of Estévez's early pieces", Dudamel explains. “It's very impressionistic, influenced by Debussy, slow, with beautiful melodies inside different colours. The composer came from Los Llanos, and the piece pays homage to that place."
Venezuela's Latin music culture being also strongly influenced by those of neighbouring countries, it was natural that Dudamel's selection would include works from further afield. Arturo Márquez's Danzón no. 2 (1994) is so popular that it has been dubbed Mexico's “second national anthem". Márquez based his Danzones on the music of Cuba and the Veracruz region of Mexico. “Young people here dream of playing the Danzón; they love it", says Dudamel. “He is a young composer, and the piece is a typical Latin American dance of our time."
A dance of a more archaic nature is the Sensemayá (1938) of Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. Based on Afro-Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén's poem Chant to Kill a Snake, the piece is rooted in primitivism. “It is a kind of Latin Rite of Spring, full of the mythological dances of the Mayas and the Aztecs", Dudamel says.
Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera's Estancia suite (1941) is also a choreographic legend, in his case based on the ancient myths of the Guaraní Indians, narrating the lives of gauchos and farm hands in the Pampas with folkloric and Creole elements. “It's one of his most famous pieces, and also typical for our orchestra", Dudamel says.
“This music is our identity. Venezuela has a great many orchestras of a high standard. They have something which is very important, which in our world we are losing, and which you can hear when the Simón Bolívar Orchestra plays: the love of music. They love to play. Music changed our lives - music is our life. We give our all with every performance. And all that can be heard in this recording."
3. Mediodia en el Llano
4. Danzon No.2, Suite para cuerdas
5. Fuga con Pajarillo
6. Las tradbajadores agrícolas
7. Danza del trigo
8. Los peones de hacienda
9. Danza final (Malambo)
10. Santa Cruz de Pacairigua (Suite Sinfónica), "West Side Story" - Symphonic Dances
11. 4. Mambo